Drawing from my own experiences but also heavily incorporating feedback from 63 local runners -- novices to elites -- I've compiled a lineup of 10 events that registered as spectacular over the course of the last calendar year.
I encourage you to argue with the selections, but at the very least, put them on your must list for 2010. If they're not already on it.
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The four-year-old event is quietly becoming the place for runners to pick up PRs. Here's why: Runners get to the start of the afternoon race by bus and then dash from one end of downtown Concord to the other, traversing a point-to-point route that's mostly downhill. "It felt like I was flying," says Dianne Allen, who set a 5K PR there. The electrifying crowds lined up for the Christmas parade help, too. Says Richard Hefner, who's run the past two Santa Scrambles: "There must have been at least 20,000 people along the course this year."
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With the exception of the start and finish, 15Kers see no commercial buildings along the fall race's 9.3-mile route. First, runners dip into Jetton Park, which rolls through the beautiful waterfront reserve for just over a mile. Then, runners come out and pass the Peninsula Club Golf Course and several miles of million-dollar homes before reconnecting with Jetton Road at the race's westernmost point. On the way back into town, the road winds along some of the most idyllic stretches of Lake Norman. It truly can be hard to keep your eyes on the road.
Held the third Saturday in October (Web site)
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China Grove Main Street Challenge
China Grove is far better known as a Doobie Brothers song and "that exit off I-85 north of Kannapolis" ... but now in its fourth year, this Friday-night 5K has become increasingly popular thanks to a flat, fast course and a 9 p.m. start time. The YMCA of Rowan County sponsors the late-spring race, which has runners charging out of the streetlit downtown into the near-pitch-blackness of the countryside. Two fun kids' races kick things off before sundown, and organizers keep folks hanging around with treats like fresh melon and Krispy Kreme donuts.
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It may be "The Southeast's Toughest 10-Miler" only because there's not much competition for the title, but the Gaston County YMCA's late-fall jaunt is "by far the most challenging race I've run," says Faith Kirkland, who ran it for the first time this year. Adds Tom Torkildsen, who's run it several times: "The last [hill] is a monster" -- a 175-foot climb straight up Spencer Mountain Road. "I have seen runners walking [it] on more than one occasion." On top of all this, runners say the route's roads have a significant camber, making it tough on the legs.
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More than 300 runners competed in this two-year-old event, held in the spring on the idyllic trails of McAlpine Creek Greenway. But the men's and women's races are staggered, so packs are relatively small (169 women and 137 men ran in 2009) -- this also makes it easy for wives to cheer on husbands and vice versa. Little flourishes enhance the experience: An Elvis impersonator is the official starter, age-group trophies are runner Bobbleheads, and there's a post-race raffle for cool prizes, so even slower runners have a shot at going home a winner.
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Just five years ago, barely 1,000 runners participated in the then-new event. It's since exploded: Last Saturday, 1,400 marathoners competed alongside 3,000 half-marathoners -- and 1,500 more ran the Jingle Jog 5K. The challenging Boston qualifier course represents our area's only 26.2-miler and puts some of the city's most beautiful and eclectic neighborhoods on display, from the lavish homes of Myers Park to the colorful bungalows of NoDa. Volunteer and police support is strong; spectator support is spotty-but-growing (and often very enthusiastic); the race expo continues to reel in more vendors; and the tie-in with the NASCAR theme has the potential to really be something special when the NASCAR Hall of Fame opens in 2010. The running community pulsates during Thunder Road. It's a shining badge of honor for Charlotte.
Held the second Saturday in December (Web site)